American Portraits

I Have a Dream: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Identity

In this lesson, students will examine events in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., analyzing both his identity and his contributions to American identity.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Civil Discourse image

Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


On the morning of August 28, 1963, an exhausted King looked outside his window of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of thousands of black Americans and their supporters were expected to attend the March on Washington for civil rights, but King did not see any crowds. He conferred with his wife, Coretta Scott King, who reassured her husband that the marchers would come….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

To what extent are you cultivating the identity necessary to enhance freedom in your own life and the lives of others? What aspects of your identity make you suited to confront prejudice and discrimination?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will examine events in the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., analyzing both his identity and his contributions to American identity.


  • Students will understand how Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the prejudice, discrimination, and racial injustice of his times in mid-twentieth-century America.
  • Students will analyze their own actions, goals, and ambitions to determine how identity contributes to the achievement of worthy goals.


The Civil Rights Movement faced some of its greatest challenges in the early 1960s. Freedom Riders—people of all races who were committed to equality—attempted to desegregate interstate buses in the face of beatings and bombings. Young African-American college students held “sit-ins” at lunch counters for the right to eat a peaceful meal in a public place. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and other movement leaders held non-violent demonstrations in cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, where they encountered mass arrests and violence in the form of ferocious police dogs and blasts from fire hoses.

In August 1963, African Americans and others marched peacefully on Washington, D.C. to fight for basic equality under the law and the opportunity to enjoy their rights and liberties as Americans. It was here that Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, which helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


  • Freedom Riders
  • Desegregate
  • Civil rights
  • Oratory
  • Emancipation Proclamation
  • Declaration of Independence
  • Promissory note
  • Default
  • Creed
  • Crescendo
  • Hamlet

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • King referred to the equality principle as an IOU note, saying, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note as far as her citizens of color are concerned.” A promissory note is similar to an “IOU,” or promise to pay a debt. If someone promised to pay a debt he/she owed you, but never did so, how did you address the situation? Or, how do you think the unpaid debt should be addressed? Compare this debt scenario to that described by King.
  • What contributions did Martin Luther King make to the advancement of freedom through his approach to understanding both his own identity and the best ideals of the American identity?
  • In what ways did King’s experiences as a target of discrimination contribute to his ability to fight for the freedom of others?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources


Lesson Image: © National Archives / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

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